Passive/Active? How about Contemplate/Participate.

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Corinne Campbell recently wrote a very helpful blog post that really made me think. She’s always a sharp writer who’s demonstrated again and again that she can see through trends that are more popular than they deserve. Some call it black hat thinking. I call it healthy cynicism, and I really appreciate that Corinne is willing to share her experience and insight with the rest of us.

The post in question is a humble defence of “passive learning”. It’s a reactionary piece that provides a personal and insightful response to the preoccupation in educational circles to prioritise so-called “active learning” (where people are in groups and are involved in activities to develop their understanding and skills) over and against any style of learning where students (or, as Corinne writes, teachers in a professional development setting) are sitting and listening to one person presenting an idea or concept.

Corinne’s thoughts struck me for two reasons, both quite personal to me. The first has to do with when I’m on the receiving end of “passive learning”, and the second has to do when I’m on the giving end.

Like Corinne, I also really value the opportunity to sit and listen to a really clear exposition of a new idea or concept or system (or an old one presented in a new way). I think it’s a mistake to believe in some kind of hyper-constructivism that ascribes value only to activities strictly centred on the learner. And I think a big part of the problem is that there is a false dichotomy that’s been set up by the language used to describe what’s going on here. Case in point: when I’m trying to learn something in a “passive learning environment”, I’m not passive at all. I’m reflecting, pondering, categorising, critiquing and a hundred other metacognitive tasks as I listen. We need a new kind of language. Just because I’m considering another person’s ideas rather than contributing my own, that doesn’t mean I’m not constructing my own understanding. Contemplation is just as valuable as participation. Each has its time and place. We need both wings on the plane.

Secondly, , Corinne’s validation of this kind of learning helps me make sense of something I’ve observed more and more of over the last 12 months. For three years now, I’ve been filming my classroom lessons and putting them up online – completely public and free (I’m a public education advocate – can you tell?). It’s not the flipped classroom, but it’s related to that idea. It was never intended as a medium to reach the masses – I literally only ever intended it to be used by a single person – and so I was immensely surprised to find a broad audience of people (both students and teachers) who started watching along and reporting to me that it was really beneficial to them. Just recently the Youtube channel passed 10,000 subscribers and 1.1 million views across all its videos.

But amid this success, I’ve felt quietly guilty. Why? It’s because I know that, at its heart, my channel is a passive medium. Yes, I could use it as a platform for interactivity (and I have in the past) – but I have young children and I’m a head teacher, so frankly I have higher priorities for my time than fielding questions online (even though I’d love to be able to do that). So I am essentially using this technology to broadcast – that is to say, to replicate a “passive learning environment” in the homes of anyone who cares to watch. This is not the kind of technology that people are supposed to be excited about. The “active learning” movement (which I value and support) is supposed to be about using technology where it helps students investigate, create and collaborate – not to consume content. So in many ways, I feel like I’ve been swimming in the wrong direction.

But it’s not true. I’m providing something that is genuinely helpful to a broad range of people and I’m not going to be ashamed of that. I am opening up an avenue for students to do what I myself appreciate so much: to ponder a counter-intuitive idea, to be led on a journey to understand new things, and to see the world in a different way. That’s awesome and it’s worth celebrating.

So I’m resolving not to talk about passive or active learning any more. I’m going to think about whether I or my students are learning by contemplation or learning by participation. As educators and learners, we need them both.

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One thought on “Passive/Active? How about Contemplate/Participate.

    Katherine Neal said:
    March 4, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    I wouldn’t worry, your videos are often used by students “actively” trying to improve their understanding. I’m involved in a program that helps university students obtain the assumed knowledge they need for their courses and I often point students toward your videos. I’ve even showed some to my daughter who watches them when she’d like to see a additional examples. Moreover, your videos sometimes give me ideas about another way to present material. I’m a huge fan.

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